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Why ‘West Side Story’ May Be the Most Critical Release of the COVID Era

"Spider-Man: No Way Home" will likely outshine the Steven Spielberg remake by millions, but the future of non-franchise theatrical releases is more important.

West Side Story

“West Side Story”

20th Century Studios

If you are interested in the future of non-franchise, non-comic book films at the movie theater, you’ve got an assignment this weekend: make it a priority to see “West Side Story” (Disney). Still, the film’s post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas dead-zone release date will make it riskier than normal to determine whether it is a success, at least initially. The stakes are high indeed for this $100 million feature, and they go beyond just its profitability, so a lot of context should be considered.

2021 was touted as the year of the musical, a rebound after the disaster of “Cats” in 2019, but this year’s results have been underwhelming. “In the Heights” was widely considered to be a disappointment after its $11.5 million opening ($30 million total). “Dear Evan Hansen” was worse: it opened with $7.4 million, made just $15 million during its run, and attracted little PVOD interest when it released there after three weeks. Most recently, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Tick Tick Boom” had three days at #7 on Netflix’s movie viewing site before dropping off the top lists.

It’s not just musicals either, these titles are all part of a wider phenomenon of films aimed at older, more sophisticated viewers mostly falling short this year. As much intrigue as “West Side Story” packs for the future of movie musicals, there’s more interest related for other, more adult-oriented standalone releases.

And this is Steven Spielberg that we are considering! His films have done nearly $10 billion (adjusted gross, domestic only), with three of his titles making it into the all-time top 20. His latest is risky: he remade a film that grossed (adjusted) over $500 million, with an enduring legacy beyond most other hits musicals of its era.

Spielberg has enjoyed past plenty of Christmastime hits (12 of his 33 features have opened in December, with “Lincoln” expanding to a wide release in the month) going back to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Generally, his popcorn audience titles have had early summer release, while those aimed at adults and awards arrive at the end of the year. And most of them have found success.

Would they now? Like the earlier figures for musicals that seem beyond comprehension now, those past grosses feel like they exist on another planet.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

Consider the competition, too: “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (Sony) opens next weekend, with its estimated initial take around $150 million, +/- $50 million. Even if the film performs at the lower end of those expectations, it would still be the best debut of the last two years. Spielberg’s remake of the 1961 Best Picture winner looks to debut with less than 10 percent of that total (in the $10-15 million range). That guess was lower before the film recently started screening for critics — receiving massive acclaim in the process — but still is at a level considered weak for recent musicals.

Christmas Day or just before is usually the go-to release slot for similar films: “Les Miserables” grossed $18 million on December 25, $66 million in five days through its first Sunday, while 2014’s “Into the Woods” took in $15 million, $46 million for the four-day long weekend. And it’s not just musicals that tend to enjoy that holiday spot, it’s also adult-aimed features, which “West Side Story” is, too. In 2015, Ron Howard’s adventure drama “In the Heart of the Sea” also opened on the second Friday of December, hitting 3,100 theaters and earning $11 million. It lost 80 percent of those viewers by Christmas Day. It’s no wonder that, in subsequent years, no other studio has tried to launch a large-scale adult-oriented drama in the same slot.

Until now.

At least the strategy seems clear. Disney is opening the film in a relatively small number of theaters (around 2,800) even though the studio has access to more. Unlike “In the Heart of the Sea,” the studio seems to be betting on the early days of the film to effectively serve as extended sneak previews, boosting interest for the normally bountiful Christmas holiday and the following week provide.

That means, if the film’s opening numbers skew to the lower end, it’s not disastrous. Apart from the potential of much improved results in its third week and beyond, the awards calendar this year skews vastly different, with the chance of elevating Spielberg’s film in later weeks as buzz grows. The whole calendar is delayed, with Oscar nominations in February.

Still, that’s a long time to wait for a box office bonanza, so audience interest needs to be piqued now. And it needs to stay high, because unlike other recent Disney films, it’s not eligible for early Disney+ or Hulu streaming. Because the film was developed at Fox — just like recent hit “Free Guy” — HBO holds the claim for streaming. Moreover, no Fox title has seen Premium VOD availability in under 45 days. With a director of Spielberg’s stature and the logic of maximizing results until the Oscar nominations, don’t be surprised if it takes until then (or even later) for the film to head to PVOD. That could help sustain a longer theater run.

Making the stakes even higher is that this is a Disney release. The studio seems to be most in flux in terms of its future plans for non-franchise films. Disney backed “Lincoln,” “Bridge of Spies,” and “The B.F.G.,” before parting ways with Dreamworks in 2016. The irony: Disney inherited “West Side Story” from Fox after the studio believed that similar adult films weren’t the key to its future, and yet this key release is now under the studio’s banner.

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